It wasn’t so long ago that social media feeds were flooded with glorified plates of pasta, luxurious meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, and inaccessible Eurocentric ingredients. But as soon as shelter-in-place orders were implemented across the country, the first shelf-stable foods to fill up shopping carts were rice and beans, along with Spam, which reported a spike in sales.
In Puerto Rico, where the shelter-in-place order has been extended to May 25, with strict curfews and staggered essential visits, home cooks are among the many who are stocking up on Spam. As an animal protein that can withstand the heat and humidity, it’s been a part of Puerto Rico’s repertoire of colonial recipes for decades, finding its way into any number of dishes.
But the one I find myself making now is Spam guisada, a simple stew consisting of tomato sauce, sofrito, vegetables, and Spam. Like a number of Puerto Rican recipes, it was born from the island’s historical collision between government-imposed food sanctions and the imperative to make something out of nothing, and has since become a mainstay in many kitchens through a combination of nostalgia and genuine fondness. And if Puerto Rican food should have long ago had its chance to be included in America’s repertoire — after all, Puerto Rico is America — then Spam guisada is a dish whose simplicity and reliance on pantry staples illustrate why now is a good time to start appreciating the island’s recipes.
Before European contact in the 15th century, cornmeal and root vegetables were dietary pillars for the Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean. But by 1898, when Puerto Rico switched hands from Spain to the United States, the island’s export-led industrial age had come to fruition and most of its land had been taken for large-scale mechanized agriculture, producing monoculture crops.
After World War II, processed foods started to appear on grocery store shelves in Puerto Rico, just as they did in much of the United States, including Hawai‘i and Guam. One of the companies that had the most success among Puerto Ricans was Goya Foods: Founded in 1936 (a year before Spam was released onto the market), it targeted Puerto Rican soldiers returning to New York from the war by marketing its canned beans, rice, preprocessed pasteles, hot sauces, and olive oil as accessible tastes of home. Meanwhile, Spam sales had also started to boom: By 1941, Hormel Foods, Spam’s manufacturer, had sold 40 million cans of the stuff. Many of them were finding their way into Puerto Rican kitchens.
During the 1940s and ’50s, poor and rural Puerto Rican communities, like my grandma’s, received government subsidies. Because they had no refrigeration, canned foods like Spam, along with Hormel’s corned beef and salchichas (Vienna sausages), were common, though largely unfamiliar to the local population. But the canned meats satiated hunger and eventually became emblematic of Puerto Rican cuisine.
Around the same time that the colonial government was sending out subsidies, it assembled a team of teachers to provide weekly “mothers’” courses to show the Puerto Rican mothers of the campo (countryside) how to prepare and creolize their rations. Some teachers, like Lorenza Brunet del Valle, saw their duties as a call to arms. In her book Negotiating Empire: The Cultural Politics of Schools in Puerto Rico, Solsiree del Moral claims that Valle believed that “the teacher is called to bring [to] fruition the very noble task of enlightening the peasant masses, of leading them out of the thick fog of ignorance in which they live.” Something tells me she wasn’t about to eat Spam guisada.
Other Puerto Rican teachers worked together with white teachers to create a curriculum that was mindful of Puerto Rico’s past and present. But in the end, they rejected their white counterparts’ inability to adapt the curriculum to local needs. The latter’s focus on how to cook government subsidies was a waste of time, they argued: The recipes that were being taught in these “home economics” workshops required the use of a modern kitchen and appliances, which ignored the fact that most rural kitchens worked off an outdoor fogon (stove) fueled by wood, and that most households lacked electricity or indoor plumbing. As a result, many impoverished and rural households found themselves excluded from this version of home economics.
Spam guisada is a legacy of this flawed curriculum. It’s a dish that my grandma cooked often, and that I now love to recreate during the summer months, when local tomatoes, corn, and green beans are plentiful. In my kitchen it has evolved into a Californian-Puerto Rican dish: there are still those blush-colored cubes of Spam, but the canned green beans have been traded for fresh ones from the farmers market. Instead of canned corn, there are sunshine kernels harvested at the peak of sweetness. I’ve also added knobs of potatoes — because the Puerto Ricans of yore always had to have potatoes — that float in the sofrito-confettied tomato sauce as it starts to thicken. Once it does, I know it’s time to cascade the dominion brew over a bed of sticky rice (grown and harvested in the California Central Valley) intermixed with bits of pegao, the burnt rice at the bottom of the pot.
In the moment that I escape into Spam guisada, it’s true that I’m also conceding to a kind of colonial Stockholm syndrome. But it’s so good that the escape is what lingers, and right now, that’s exactly what I need.
You can find Illyanna’s recipe for Spam guisada on her website, EatGordaEat.